The Problem of Knowing

On the day of your birth, when the veil of forgetting descends upon you, your "known" world becomes this Reality filtered through your senses. From that day on, your senses conspire with Reality to create the illusion of physical existence. A mere "illusion", since that is also the moment when you cease to know anything for certain. Absolute certainty is instead replaced with believing, believing what you believe, believing what you believe what you believe, and so on until your iterated beliefs reach a high enough iteration level that you delude yourself into "knowing".

You never truly "know" though in this realm. You don't know who you are, where you come from, why you are here - the veil of forgetting took care of that. You cannot be certain of anything. You don't know what you eat, you just believe the label. When you grab some dirt from the ground, you can't know what it consists of, but you might believe a scientist who believes to have all the answers. Lacking the ability to mind-read, you must rely on your sense of feelings / judgement when it comes to human interaction. You never know who is lying to you. You cannot even be certain who your mother or father is, whether you have been adopted, your mom cheated on your dad, or whether you have accidentally been exchanged with another baby at the hospital.

It just gets crazy. When I was a child of about seven, I spent endless hours trying to crack the problem of knowing: how can I possibly know anything for certain. The apparent answer depressed me: you can't, you can only believe, believe what you believe, believe what you believe what you believe, and so on. I thought I will have a better answer when I grow up (I usually kept in mind riddles I couldn't answer). But sadly for the most part I still don't, and this is where it gets the craziest.

Scientists, the most highly respected members of our society, are indeed followers of the religion of Science. I say religion and not philosophy, because due to the Scientific Method, and its implementation via experiments, Science is but a system of beliefs. The aim of an experiment is not to prove a hypothesis, but to disprove it. If the experimental result remains in agreement with the hypothesis, we can go on to devising the next apparatus to disprove it. A true statement is like a diamond, it resists any attack for a flaw, and if a hypothesis is true, it will resist the attacks of experiments trying to disprove it. However we will never know for sure if the hypothesis actually holds, since for that an infinite number of disproving experiments would need to be executed. Theories are but coherent collections of hypotheses that have not yet been disproven, thus making them a mere system of beliefs.

So then, is there any truth left to "know" in this realm? Anything we can be certain of? Fortunately the answer is a resounding YES! These are the results of Mathematics, likely the only thing we would have surely in common with an alien race. Let us not forget, Mathematics is not a Science. It consists of true statements - theorems - derived via proofs from a small set of axioms or trivial truths - the trick being to keep the proofs flawless / rigorous. Mathematics is what it is, a beautiful evolving castle of diamonds. Let us cherish as it stands today, due to the labors of fellow truth-seekers, and let us contribute to its evolution with respectful insolence via our sharpest lens. Meanwhile remember to stop to wonder as the veil lifts, by every flash of miraculous insight, illuminating your true higher self.

Note (08-25-2014): A branch of philosophy called "epistemology" deals with the problem of "knowing". Interestingly I was not aware of it at the time of writing this essay, which also predates the following video.

Link to video on YouTube »